Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Ms. Fujii Writes, Plays, and Speaks Her Mind (Large Ensemble & Solo)

2018 is the year pianist, composer, and arranger Satoko Fujii turns 60 years old and will release an album every month (one may remember Wynton Marsalis doing something similar in 1999, albeit not for his 60th).  This month will see the release of a solo piano recital.  Before we talk about anything brand new, I should look at two of her more exciting 2017 albums.  Early November saw the latest release (and 10th since 1997) by her 13-member Orchestra New York. Titled "Fukushima" (Libra Records), the music is a reaction to the nuclear disaster triggered by an earthquake in 2011.  There were several deaths as well as tens of thousands of people displaced from their homes (in some instances, for more than nine months). The after-effects of the disaster were felt throughout Japan and the Far East.

The impressive ensemble - saxophonists Oscar Noriega, Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby, and Andy Laster, trumpeters Dave Ballou, Herb Robertson, and Natsuki Tamura, trombonists Joey Sellers, Joe Fielder, and Curtis Hasselbring, plus guitarist Nels Cline, electric bassist Stomu Takeishi, and drummer Ches Smith - do an amazing job bringing this musical five-section story to life.  There are moments when the music is mournful, confrontational, angry, quiet, loud, and emotionally powerful. Section "1" opens with breath, as if the wind was passing through trees or over the landscapes of the city. Slowly, one hears various voices rise out of the ensemble, trumpet, sax, percussion - Cline's "tolling" guitar lines ushers in a new section where various voices move in and around his sound.  The group hits its stride at the beginning of "2" when the rhythm section pushes forward a powerful sure of sound and different soloists rise and fall around  them.  The whole group then plays a powerful counterpoint to Laster's squalling baritone solo - yet, pay attention to Cline, Smith, and especially Takeishi (the bassist really roars underneath).

One is tempted to write about every section of this 57-minute adventure but the best advice is to start at the beginning and listen all the way through.  Then, repeat.  What stands out for you?  Is the power of the "sound"? Is it how the electronics of the guitar and bass push the music into different territories for a large ensemble?  Is it the gorgeous coda that is section "5"?  Chances are that it is all of the above and more.  Ms. Fujii gives voice to the victims, making the power of her music and musicians speak for those who suffered (the majority of section "4" is filled with short solo or duo statements, making the point that all voices should be heard - the full band "blues" that closes the section is extremely powerful as well, giving even more gravitas to "5".

"Fukushima", a tragedy translated into music by Satoko Fujii, is quite a stunning work. The musicians of Orchestra New York left their egos at the door for the sake of the narrative.  Yes, the title of the album adds the weight of expectations to the music but serves as a reminder that composers and musicians live in the "real" world as much as they do in the world of creativity.  Here, those worlds collide and, I believe, we are better for it.

Earlier in 2017, the Japanese label Cortez Sound (named for the Cortez Jazz Cafe in Mito, Japan, approximately 80 miles to the northeast of Tokyo) issued its first album.  "Invisible Hand" is a two-CD recording of the solo piano music of Satoko Fujii.  There are 10 tracks, 87 minutes of music, much of which is improvised. As with "Fukushima", the listener is advised to sit and listen, leaving (if possible) one's expectations aside.  The music covers a great deal of territory, from flowing Keith Jarrett-like melodies to the title track that starts inside of the piano and does not have a true "melody" until 2/3rds of the way through its 13+ minutes. "Floating" is an amazing piece with prepared piano; the power of the pianist's single note phrases and occasional chords plus the marimba-like "prepared" sounds have a meditative feel - watch how the mood and direction changes midway through. This is such a fascinating exploration of possibilities.

In the brief liner notes included in the package, Ms. Fujii writes that she "played total improvisation in the first set, mixed with some written pieces in the second set." The joy of this music is that the listener cannot really hear the difference.  The power of pieces such as "Spring Storm" and "Green Cab" is in the pictures that the pianist paints on (and in) her keyboard (the latter track has a delightful "stride piano" section that may remind some of the work of Myra Melford, who as recorded with Ms. Fujii).

Yes, Satoko Fujii is "flooding" the market with her music and yes, it can be overwhelming. For this listener (who has heard several dozen of her albums with various groups), "Invisible Hand" is one of my favorites. It's true that I like the occasional "clutter" of her different large ensembles and her fascinating accordion work with the Gato Libre quartet: however, this two-disk set is quite entertaining and emotionally satisfying.

For more information, go to www.satokofujii.com.

Here's the opening track:

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Catching Up January 18 (Pt. 1)

Over the past several decades, guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi has been "fusing" sounds from India and his native Pakistan with the varied influences of Western Music, specifically jazz and blues. His 12th album as a leader, "Unfiltered Universe" (Whirlwind Recordings), features his long-time companions Vijay Iyer (piano), Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto saxophone), Johannes Weidenmueller (bass), and Dan Weiss (drums) and adds the cello of Elizabeth Mikael.  Iyer, Weiss, Mahanthappa, and Weidenmueller appeared on 2011's "Suno Suno" and 2009's "Things to Come" and the leader sees this record as a third in a trilogy of recording that use South Asian music as touchstone for his compositions and the improvisations.  The blend of alto sax, acoustic piano, and guitar with this highly active rhythm section makes for a winning combination.

John Rogers photo
"Propensity" opens the program and, right from the start, the listener should pay attention to the different components. The extended melody, the powerful combination of bass and drums, the vocal characteristic of Mahanthappa's alto sax, the way the arrangement includes the cello as counterpoint. and the excellent solos.  The title track follows.  This melody, played by the alto and guitar, has a lovely almost melancholy flavor especially when the cello enters shadowing the lines played by the piano.  Notice the "freedom" yet structure in the rhythm section during the solos as well as Iyer's heavy chordal work.  The rhythms slow down at the onset of the piano solo and one can really hear the articulated notes and how, slowly, surely, Iyer works in tandem with Weidenmueller and Weiss.

With exception of "Thoughts", a short (1:41) but rambunctious guitar solo, the songs stretch out but no piece is overdone.  It's fun to hear how the tempos change within songs, how the different voices interact, how the power of the alto sax is matched by the guitar and piano but is not a "war" of virtuosi.  The leader plays with great fire throughout yet there are moments of simple beauty as well.  The longest track (11:54), "Turn of Events", take its time to get going but once the song hits a rhythmic stride, the musicians still don't hurry.  The mysterious melody finally arrives, played by the guitar, sax, and cello and it's as if everything as fallen into the right places. Soon, Mahanthappa and Abbasi are soloing together as the pianist pulls the rhythm section forward.  But, they drop for a piano solo framed by only the bass and drums yet you can hear how Iyer builds his powerful spot from the main melody and rhythm of the composition. Ms. Mikael steps out for a quick solo with Weidenmueller's bass as a counterpoint before the bass is by himself.  Guitar and piano create a percussive dialogue before the sextet returns for the reprise of the opening theme.

"Unfiltered Universe" is structured yet has such a "free" feel at times it seems as if the musicians are spinning a magic story.  While Rez Abbasi talks about the importance of carnatic music to this album, all the influences seems to have merged into an original sound.  Give a listen and then another - this music all seduce you.

For more information, go to www.reztone.com.

Here's the title track:

It was Peter Margasak in the Chicago Reader who hipped his readers to the "Flow", the new Delmark album from the Paul Gialorrenzo Trio.  I went out and purchased the album on the power of his suggestion.  Yes, it's a piano trio album, released at a time when one get lost easily in the plethora of piano trio recordings. But, I understand his enthusiasm.  Pianist and composer Gialorrenzo, a native of Long Island, NY who now resides and works in Chicago, has crafted an album that may remind some of work of Herbie Nichols or Bud Powell or Thelonious Monk. He's not afraid of changing tempos in mid-phrase and is blessed to have the rhythm section of Joshua Abrams (bass) and Mikel Patrick Avery (drums) who not only follow his creative paths he creates but push, poke, prod, and "swing like mad" along the way.

Listen to how "Rolling" does just that, how it rolls along on the walking bass lines and ride cymbal and how the melody and solo dances atop it.  Throughout the nine-song program, the emphasis is on melody, interplay, and  the narrative Giallorenzo weaves into every track.  Feet have to tap on "Flipd Scrip" and heads will lean in on the opening melody of "Interstice": with the entrance of bassist Abrams on the latter track, the piece moves in a "freer" direction but never goes all the way out. In fact, there's a section that is "deep" blues.

The two pieces that bookend the album, "A-Frolicking" and "A Way We Go", point to the playfulness of this music, the type of repertoire that make audiences sit up and smile.  The Paul Giallorenzo Trio swings with glee, the music never feels forced, and you can see the musicians are paying close attention to each other.  "Flow" is a delight from start to finish.

For more information about this fascinating musician, go to paulgiallorenzo.com.

Saxophonist Nick Hempton (alto and tenor) has issued four fine albums on Posi-Tone Records, mostly with his fine Quartet.  With the release of "Trio Stonk: Live at Smalls" (SmallsLIVE), the Australian native has downsized but not to the detriment of his music. With his rhythm section - George DeLancey (bass) and long-time associate Dan Aran (drums) - Hempton moves his way through seven pieces, five of which are originals.  Not hard to compare some of the pieces to the 1950s Trio work of Sonny Rollins - listen to the opening of "Dropping A Franklin" or the playful take of "When I Grow Too Old to Dream" and you can hear it in the way Hempton phrases and the gentle swing of the rhythm section.  There are even a few Rollins quotes on the opening of "Not That Sort of Jazz That Stewart Likes", a delightful romp that has an easy groove.

The lovely take of the standard "Poor Butterfly" is a highlight, the alto sax dancing around the structural work of the bass and drums. The singing tone of the sax, the gentle brush work, and intelligent counterpoint from the bass, all combine for a sweet ballad.  "A Whistling Blues" opens with just sax and bass playing a "down home" tune with the feel of David "Fathead" Newman supporting Ray Charles.  The blues gets deeper when the drums enters to slowly push the tune forward.

Trio Stonk plays with verve, a sweet sense of humor, and the desire to entertain people who like jazz. Neither confrontational nor challenging, Nick Hempton and company make music that's filled with joy, soaked in the blues, not afraid to swing, and possessing a sense of humor.  Relax and dig into these tasty sounds.

For more information, go to nickhemptonband.com.

Give a listen:

Monday, January 1, 2018

New Year & More New Music

In a delightful surprise move, Pi Recordings pre-released the new album from Henry Threadgill on New Year's Eve (yes, last night). The recording features yet another new ensemble for the Pulitzer Prize winning composer and reed master, the 15-member 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg. Not sure what the name means but you can be sure that Mr. Threadgill has created music that blurs the lines between composition and improvisation, underpinning it all with the amazing flow from an expanded rhythm section. His Zooid group - cellist Chris Hoffman, drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee, acoustic guitarist Liberty Ellman, and the stunning tuba master Jose Davila - are all here augmented by members of his Ensemble Double Up - pianists David Virelles (also harmonium) and David Bryant, alto saxophonists Curtis Macdonald and Roman Filiu (who also plays alto flute), and drummer Craig WeinribFilling out the group are trombonists Jacob Garchik and Ben Gersteintrumpeters Stephanie Richards and Jonathan Finlayson, plus bassist Thomas Morgan. The 15th musician is Mr. Threadgiill who appears on alto saxophone, flute, and alto flute.

The album won't be officially released until Spring so you have to go to henrythreadgill.bandcamp.com/album/dirt-and-more-dirt to purchase it now as a download.  If you are a fan of Henry Threadgill, you'll go there and you will be more than pleased.  It's a treat and a challenge, just like the New Year itself. Go and give a listen. It just might ward off the chill that has covered the United States over the past week or so.  Worth a try!

I've been driving around the past few months with the new CD by Carn Davidson 9 in my player. "Murphy" (self-released) is the nonet's second recording and continues the concept of the group's 2012 debut album; three reeds, four brass plus bass and drums, no chordal instruments.  Led by William Carn (trombone, compositions) and Tara Davidson (alto sax, soprano sax, flute, clarinet, compositions), this band is a real community with arrangements by members.  Most of the band from the debut album is back including Kelly Jefferson (tenor sax, soprano sax, clarinet), Perry White (baritone sax, bass clarinet), Jason Logue and Kevin Turcotte (trumpet, flugelhorn), and bassist Andrew Downing - joining the band are Alex Duncan (bass trombone) and Ernesto Cervini (drums).

The eight pieces (four each for the co-leaders) make intelligent use of the various voices.  Many of the melodies are carried by the sections, with counterpoint from the others, all driven by the delightful rhythm section. On Carn's "Glassman", vocalist Emilie-Claire Barlow because part of the band with her wordless vocals alongside the brass and clarinets.  The beginning is rubato so the flow comes from the melody. When the rhythm section enters, Ms. Barlow's voice moves in and out of the arrangement during the solos.  "Murphy's Law" has a delightful melody section that leads to a lovely and lengthy solo from White (on baritone sax): only near the close do the sections come in to dance around underneath him.

Lloyd Smith - Ottawa Citizen
There's a lovely classical feel in the reeds and brass melody that opens "Second Act (for Ron)". When the rhythm section enters, the melody is moved forward by the soprano sax, clarinet and flute. Listen to how the voices intertwine, interact, and work below the fine soprano saxophone solo.  There is a symphonic feel to the arrangement (by Carn for his composition). Make sure to check out the excellent work by bassist Downing especially in the final third of the piece.  "Reason, Season, Lifetime" dances in on a short riff from the saxophones, a riff that is repeated several tines throughout the piece. Check out how Jefferson's tenor solo picks up on the "dancing" motif now carried on by the rhythm section.  The other "voices" do a sweet job framing the solo, moving in and out behind the tenor (trumpeter Logue's arrangement).  Ms. Davidson has the other solo, her soprano sax lines slipping and sliding atop the rhythms while the sections match her energy as the intensity level matches up.

The title track closes the album. Named for the for the co-leaders's cat, "Murphy!" (the exclamation point is added as a descriptor) is, at times, playful, slower, jumping around, feisty, but never aloof...you know, cat-like.  There is even a touch of electronics on the tenor sax solo (could also represent the many personalities of a cat) and it's Cervini's exciting solo that brings the song and album back to its playful opening melody.  Not quite a cat chasing its tail mor like one dashing through the house for reasons unknown to humans.

"Murphy" is a delight from start to finish. Even if you are allergic to cats, this music will make you smile, dance, relax, and, honestly, feel better.  Carn Davidson 9 is a true "family" ensemble (listen to "Family Portrait" to hear how all the voices come together to move the narrative forward), one that creates music you'll want to listen to over and over.

For more information, go to www.taradavidson.ca or to www.williamcarn.com.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

2017, What a Year! (Pt 5 - Solo, Group, Historical)

The plan was for 36 of my favorite CDs including reissues or "historical" releases.  The final count for this year is 44! And I missed a few.  In the next few weeks, I'll be "catching up" with releases that came out over the past few months and I did not have the time to write about (and there are a number that deserve your attention).  As I look at other lists created by friends and other reviewers, critics and musicians, one has to reiterate that 2017 was a major step forward for music.  Personal became political became reality and begat artists who felt the need to step up, who could not believe what they were seeing and hearing. Even with several special elections that turned Senate or House seats from red to blue, one cannot see 2018 being any calmer.  If anything, life could get "hotter" as politicos and journalists, pundits and prognosticators, feel no compulsion to compromise - "my way or the highway" has certainly replaced "let's work together" as the national mantra.

Into the fray this year came pianist, composer, and educator Vijay Iyer.  He put together an amazing Sextet - Steve Lehman (alto saxophone), Mark Shim (tenor saxophone), Graham Haynes (cornet, flugelhorn, electronics), Stephan Crump (bass) and the indefatigable Tyshawn Sorey (drums) - and gave them music to really dig into.  There are moments where the fire coming from the rhythm section may overwhelm your speakers but that note how the horns continue to ride those waves.  Note the subtle work of Graham Haynes, the occasional forays into Fender Rhodes (few pieces this year funkier than "Nope"), and how the leader pushes, persuades, and often lets loose with torrents of notes that match the intensity of Crump and Sorey.  It's not all "sturm and drang" but this album, titled "Far From Over" (ECM Records) grabs ahold of the mind, shakes it, and reminds us to stay involved.

Speaking of grabbing ahold of a tiger. alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa self-released his new Indo-Pak Coalition album "Agrima", selling to only as a digital-download from his website. With long-time companions Rez Abbasi (guitar, pedals) and Dan Weiss (tabla, drum kit), the album explores numerous musical motifs that show the influence of nations that give the band its name as well as nodding towards the Mahavishnu Orchestra.  The interactions, the stop-on-a-dime and go in a new direction, the amazing work of Weiss, and the sounds that emanate from the guitar and saxophone (the first time Mahanthappa has recorded with  synths), all that as well as the wonderfully drawn compositions makes "Agrima" a joy to hear. Try and sit still!

Drummer Weiss is also part of the quartet saxophonist and composer David Binney gathered to record "The Time Verses" (CrissCross Records).  Binney has used Weiss, bassist Eivind Opsvik, and pianist Jacob Sacks as his working group in New York City's 55 Bar for a number of years. The narrative of the album is a "day in the life" of a working musician but you do need to know that to really dig into this music. Always a powerful soloist, Binney has quite the ear for melody. There's a poetic feel to pieces such as "Walk", "Seen" (with lovely vocal from guest Jen Shyu), and the episodic "Where Worlds Collide."  Spend time with these "verses" and your spirit will be refreshed.

September of this year was quite a month for pianist, composer, and now author Fred Hersch.  Jazz at Lincoln Center invited him to perform his "Leaves of Grass" suite, his memoir  "Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz" was published to very positive reviews, and his new solo piano album "Open Road" (Palmetto) was released.  What made this album stand out in the Hersch repertoire is not just the excellent interpretations of material by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Benny Golson, Billy Joel (!), and Thelonious Monk (no surprise there) but the three fascinating original pieces.  One piece, "Through The Forest", runs nearly 20 minutes and covers so much territory without getting bogged down in cliches or at a loss for a through-line. In fact, what stands out is how outside of genre the music is (a nice way of saying don't pigeonhole the piece by calling it jazz, classical, or whatever.)  

I am blessed to know pianist and educator Laszlo Gardony, one of the friendliest and most creative musicians one will ever meet.  It makes such good sense to call his new solo piano album "Serious Play" (Sunnyside Records). If you have Professor Gardony in person, you know that he has great technique but never allows that to get in the way of serving the melody or the rhythm (he really knows how to create rhythm in his music).  He also understand the blues so pieces such as "Georgia On My Mind" and "Over The Rainbow" are ripe with honest emotions.  Each track stands out yet the program feel connected from beginning to end.  You can play this album over and over and hear something new each time.

Another person who is a "serious player" is Anat Cohen. If you have ever seen her in person, you know that the clarinetist (she also baritone sax on this CD)  is rarely without a smile, that she can make the most "down-home blues" feel like a revival meeting, and she can genres in a heartbeat. This year saw three new releases including two with a Brazilian and one with her new Tentet.  Arranged by Oded Lev-Ari, the music ranges from klezmer to Brazil to swing to deep ballads and to African balafon music.  Her ensemble -  Rubin Kodheli (cello), Nadje Noordhuis (trumpet, flugelhorn), Nick Finzer (trombone), Owen Broder (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet), James Shipp (vibraphone, percussion), Vitor Gonçalves (piano, accordion), Sheryl Bailey (guitar), Tal Mashiach (bass), and Anthony Pinciotti (drums) - is excellent. One can tell this music is for the concert hall and larger clubs yet much of the time one wants to dance ("Kenedougou Foly" closes the program and I dare you to sit still.

Like the Jen Shyu, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Josh Nelson, and Tomas Fujiwara recordings, the second album from the Marta Sánchez Quintet has been sitting on my desktop for months (and playing while I was doing school work). Retaining  the front line of alto saxophonist Roman Filiu and tenor saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh from her previous CD but with a new rhythm section of bassist Rick Rosato and drummer Daniel Dor, "Danza Imposible" (Fresh Sound New Talent) builds on the promise of her 2015 date titled "Partenika" (Ms. Sánchez has issued two earlier albums on Spanish labels).  There is a "lightness of being" on several tracks where the reeds don't "blow" as much as sing while the rhythm section often has a dancing quality. Meanwhile the leader's piano contains both beauty and muscle - for example, "Flesh" builds off powerful chords yet retains a quiet center, especially in the impressionistic piano solo. The slightly off-kilter saxophones lead the title track and share the melody lines while the piano plays counterpoint with the drums and bass building the tension.  Ms. Sánchez has written music for a group, not for soloists and a rhythm section; it's fun to hear how the different voices in the group play off each other.  There are moments when the mood and freedom of movement reminds this listener of the classic Miles Davis 1965-68 Quintet and that's a good thing. You can really tell that this group enjoys playing together and that joy is contagious.

It took composer and arranger Ed Neumeister over three years, several grants, and an Indiegogo campaign to bring his new album "Wake Up Call" (Meistero Music) to fruition.  Yet, this labor of love is anything but laborious. In fact, much of this music soars. The NeuHat Ensemble is composed of world-class musicians (many of whom have worked or play with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the Maria Schneider Orchestra), it's so enjoyable when the musicians dig in to the well sculpted melodies and intelligent arrangements.  There's a touch of Duke Ellington in "Locomotion" (the composer writes that the song is based on John Coltrane's "Dear Lord") while it's possible that "Birds of Prey" has some influence from Ms. Schneider's well-known hobby. This music sparkles with inventiveness, wit, and often has a gentler side that is soothing.

Saxophonists Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano came together in 2007 at the request of BBC Radio to celebrate the 40th anniversary of John Coltrane's passing. With a rhythm section of Phil Markowitz (piano), Ron McClure (bass), and Billy Hart (drums), The results of their musical endeavors can be heard on "Compassion: The Music of John Coltrane", beautifully packaged and mastered by Resonance Records.  The six-song program features works for 1958 up until 1967's title track.  Both saxophonists play extremely well, never attempting to imitate the muscular sound that Coltrane mastered yet still having great power. The rhythm section also plays with great fire, especially Hart.  This quintet succeeds unmaking Coltrane's music sound timeless and fresh.

This year, Resonance Records released two albums from pianist Bill Evans featuring the rhythm section of Eddie Gomez (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums).  Up until now, the only album with that lineup was Evans's Verve Lp "Bill Evans at The Montreux Jazz Festival." That recording won a GRAMMY in 1969 by which time the drummer was in the Miles Davis Group.  "Another Time: The Hilversum Concert" was recorded seven days after Montreux and just two days after "Some Other Time: The Lost Session from the Black Forest", which Resonance released earlier this year. The albums are fairly similar though they have different material. The later recording seems livelier, punchier, as if the trio had a good dinner and were digging each other's company.  Bill Evans remains quite popular 37 years after his passing and there are a lot of albums to choose from. The spark of inventiveness can be heard throughout "Another Time" and that makes the music infectious.

That's a wrap, as they say, for 2017. These albums made me feel good while listening and writing; some even helped my mood get so much better.  I was sick and hospitalized in July and early August so music really made my recuperation time move by.  Thanks to the promoters and the publicists, thanks to my fellow writers for keeping me honest, and thanks to the artists for taking chances and not settling for just good!  Thanks to you for reading and reacting.  Be healthy, be safe, and be generous throughout the Holiday and into 2018.  Change is all around us. We must be ready and resolute and never, ever, lose your sense of humor and love of music.


Saturday, December 23, 2017

2017, What A Year (Pt 4 - Unique Voices)

This "Best of" list is in no order other than coming from the pile of CDs on the desk. Each album holds the power to capture the mind, to ask questions, to illustrate technical prowess but not for the sake of the narrative. I discovered that my original list of 36 did not include reissues or "albums of historical note" plus a pair of delightful solo piano disks so, "Yes Virginia, there will be a Part 5."

Saxophonist and composer Noah Preminger made this album in the heat he felt following the 2016 US Election (as did Ryan Keberle - see "2017..Pt 1"). The songs, originals and selected "covers", speak to the dysfunctional nature of politics and government to be able to see its inherent problems (and its strengths) and do something - anything - that benefits the people.  It's no surprise that the album cover is in black & white because there are days when it seems that there are no shades in between.  Yet, this music is not all "doom and gloom"; feelings of hope enter into pieces such as "Give Me Love", "A Change is Gonna Come", and "We Have A Dream."  Kudos to Preminger, trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Kim Cass, and drummer Ian Froman for lighting up the dark nights.

It's been over 10 years since saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón made an album that just featured him with his oft-dazzling quartet of pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Henry Cole.  "Típico" (Miel Music) arrived in February of 2017 and shows just how delightful this "working" band can be.  Friends who attended "live" shows have told me that the ensemble often breathes as one.  In many ways, this quartet reminds me of the  "classic" John Coltrane quartet in that no one voice is more important than any one else, that they share the same goals, that they listen, respond, and are sympathetic. In its finest moments, one can hear how these musicians are in the midst of a most delightful dance, one in which they may go in separate directions but come back together with such delight, spirit, and gentleness.

I did not review or write about "Song of Silver Geese", the splendid new recording by multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Jen Shyu. Honestly, I am not sure what to tell you other than the album is a culmination of Ms. Shyu's years of studying the music and stories of East and West Timor, Taiwan, Indonesia, Korea, and elsewhere in Asia.  Using Eastern and Western instruments (vibraphone, string bass, piano, Taiwanese moon lute, zither, plus a string quartet), this music is truly like nothing you have heard.  To this observer, the main point is human beings around the world share stories, think about our existence in a fragile world, dream of the supernatural yet are aligned with the sun, planets, and stars.  We may not understand the lyrics - read the translations - but the underlying emotions are universal.  Powerful music that deserves not only to be heard but certainly to be seen.

In the space of a week, three separate albums featuring pianist Tal Cohen arrived on my doorstops (physical and digital).  "Gentle Giants" (self-released) emerge quickly as my favorite, the powerful melodies and emotional ballads sparking to a musician who has absorbed his influences and is not afraid to take chances. Add saxophonists Greg Osby (alto) or Jamie Oehlers (tenor) to the rhythm section of Cohen, bassist Robert Hurst, and drummer Nate Winn and the music soars with inventiveness, exhibiting the joy that musicians have when they are playing well together.  Cohen digs into every solo as if it was his last, mining the melodies and harmonies to create cogent statements as well as exciting flights of fancy.

For those of following the career of bassist Linda May Han Oh, her fourth album as as leader "Walk Against Wind" (Biophilia Records) continues to show her development as a composer and soloist.  Written for her "regular" band -  Ben Wendel (tenor saxophone), Matthew Stevens (guitar), and Justin Brown (drums) - and featuring pianist Fabian Almazan (on three tracks) plus percussionist Minji Park (on one track), this music is ever-so-melodic with unexpected turns, fine solos, and Ms. Oh's expressive bass work.  And the more you return, the more you hear.  This artist can certainly hold her own in any rhythm section but you can't help but marvel at how her instrument can help create the sound of a band - that writ, her interactions with Brown really stand out.

Saxophonist Ralph Bowen's self-title Posi-Tone release is, arguably, the most impressive release of his long and varied career.  Recorded with Jim Ridl (piano, Fender Rhodes), Kenny Davis (bass), and Cliff Almond (drums), the bulk of the album's time is dedicated to the saxophonist's (mostly tenor) original work "The Phylogeny Suite" - the 42-minute, six-part, work covers a large amount of musical territory and neither flags or loses its direction. Playful, honest, at times soaked in blues, the program shows a musician at the top of his game and a band that pushes, prods, and fiercely supports his every move.  Kudos as well to Nick O'Toole for a splendid recording and his usual excellent mastering.

Tenor saxophonist, composer, and arranger Paul Jones used several different ensembles in the recording of "Clean" (Inside Out Music) including a sextet with two saxes, guitar, piano, bass, and drums plus a wind trio with cello, a saxophone quartet, and a flute-piano duo.  The sextet appears on the majority of the longer tracks bur the guests rarely intrude and the music really flows.  Soaked in melody, the music goes in many directions without getting lost. The stories Jones is telling deal with creativity, with the musician's search for growth, and wanting to connect with as many people as possible. Is it possible to be true to your "muse", to want to continue to grow each and every day, and to want people to join you on your journey?  We say yes! We say that "Clean" is a delight from start to finish!

I did not review "The Sky Remains" (Steel Bird), the latest album for pianist and composer Josh Nelson, but I did listen to the delightful album many times. The music is a love-letter to and appreciation for his hometown, the city of Los Angeles, CA.  Many of us think of LA as one giant freeway but the area was first settled in the late 1780s, incorporated as a city in 1850 and is currently the second most populous city in the U.S. There is so much to learn reading to liner notes and much to enjoy listening to how Nelson's music gives an emotional heart to his urban area.  Kathleen Grace adds her luminous voice to four of the tracks. Also pay attention to Nelson's classy arrangements especially how he utilizes Chris Lawrence (trumpet, flugelhorn), Josh Johnson (alto sax, flute), and the expressive clarinets of Brian Walsh.  Take this journey and you will be so pleased!

Violinist Sam Bardfeld, who has worked with Bruce Springsteen, Anthony Braxton, and the Jazz Passengers, came back as a leader this year with "The Great Enthusiasms" (BJU Records). Joining him on this aural journey was pianist Kris Davis and drummer Michael Sarin - the stores they tell are inspired by the likes of Richard Nixon and the music of the 1970s (the trio covers Bruce Springstreen's "Because The Night" plus do a knock-out version of The Band's "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)"). The trio does not play it safe, meaning the music goes in many and varied directions. With influences ranging from bluegrass, rock, the explorations of Leroy Jenkins and Billy Bang, and more, Sam Bardfeld and company create a program that is challenging, exciting, rich with ideas and interactions, and well worth exploring.

Friday, December 22, 2017

2017, What a Year! (Pt 3 - Love Those Large Ensembles)

For someone as disorganized as a human being can be, my love of large ensemble music might not make sense.  Yet, I am continually blown away at how the different voices mix, how melodies are passed from section to section, and his the rhythm section is so important.  It's hard not to fascinated how composers and arrangers take the sounds they hear in their head, turin them into notes, and then back into notes.  It's the adding back of the human element that thrills.  Modern big bands are often filled with the most talented musicians who subsume their egos for the better of their collective. Each one of the albums listed below includes songs with great solos but, for this listener, it's often the "amazing swirls of sounds" that remain long after the album is over.

Pianist, composer, and arranger Frank Carlberg released "Monk Dreams, Hallucinations and Nightmares" (Red Piano Records) early in 2017, the centennial year of Thelonious Sphere Monk's birth.  The music sparkles with inventiveness, Monk melodies weaving in and out of intelligent arrangements, powerful solos on every song, etc.  The album culminates with an amazing take on "'Round Midnight", an 11-minute meditation on the classic song with Kirk Knuffke's cornet in front the entire time (perhaps the finest recorded solo of a great year of solos.)  Like the music that inspired it, this collection sounds fresh each time you listen.

"How To Say Goodbye" (JCA Recordings) was issued in late 2016 (as was the album above)  - a star-studded large ensemble (powered by drummer Matt Wilson, no less), it was the first Big Band  album composer, arranger, and educator Ken Schaphorst in 18 years.  It's such a treat to hear how the sections work together and independently, how the melodies lead to exhilarating solos, how the myriad of influences in the composer's life helped shape such original music. The results live and breathe, entertain, challenge, without pushing the listener away - in fact, more than once after the last track ended, I would go back to the beginning and listen again.

Took me a while to come around to appreciate just how good "The Better Angels of Our Nature" (Truth Revolution Records) is. A long-time project of saxophonist and arranger Brian McCarthy, the music inspired by the first Inaugural Address of President Abraham Lincoln (1861) was created for nonet, an ensemble that allows the arranger to plays with his aural palette in so many creative ways.  In a year of such turmoil as 2017 has been, this album serves to remind one that the United States has seen such roiling times in the past and survived, fresh scars each time but with the desire for improvement. Music can help; it cannot change the world but does often remind us that our "better angels" are often close-by.

Yet another album issued in late 2016, "Jailhouse Doc With Holes in Her Socks" (JCA Records) is the latest aural adventure from composer and arranger Darrell Katz. Dedicated to his late wife,  Paula Tatarunis (1962-2015), much of the music uses her poetry as a stepping stone to fascinating melodies and creative arrangements - Katz has always been influenced by Julius Hemphill and the long version of "The Red Blues/Red Blues (Live)" that closes the disk shows how that influence has evolved into Katz's "personal" sound (also features the unique voice of saxophonist Oliver Lake.  Utilizing various sized ensembles as well as the expressive voice of Rebecca Shrimpton, this music is quite powerful and rewarding.

If this was saxophonist, composer, and arranger Chelsea McBride's debut recording, it would easily be one of the debut albums of 2017.  A young veteran of the Toronto music scene, Ms. McBride is quite busy, leading several different ensembles and member of several others.  "The Twilight Fall" (Brontosauras Records) is the full-length debut of her Socialist Night School, a 19-piece aggregation complete with a vocalist, powerful electric guitar, plus the oft-rampaging drums of Geoff Bruce. Alex Samaras adds emotionally rich vocals to a number of tunes but, for these ears, it's how Ms. McBride uses the various sections of the band to enhance the narrative and to keep the music moving forward.  There are various influences from the jazz and blues side but also nods to rock music, Latin and much more. Attractive music that shows vitality and maturity as well as the desire to go in different directions.

Trombonist, composer, and arranger Alan Ferber created "Jigsaw" (Sunnyside Records) for his Big Band. It's that ensemble's second album and shines so bright with originality, solos, intelligent and challenging material as well as being emotionally rich (in that way, reminiscent of the work of Maria Schneider and Bob Brookmeyer). The seven pieces are just "vehicles for blowing", although there are no shortage of impressive solos.  Yes, this band can roar but it's the blend of the quiet moments, the introspective melodies and harmonies, and those moments when the musician let loose that gives the music its humanity.

Kenny Wheeler's big band music is held in high regard by music scholars but is not in the repertoire of many large ensembles. "Sweet  Ruby Suite"(UofT Jazz) comes from the University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra, Gordon Foote director, and finds the student ensemble interpreting the Canadian native's music alongside saxophonist Dave Liebman and Wheeler's long-time associate, vocalist Norma Winstone.  To the band's credit, they hew closely to the original Wheeler arrangements.  What stands out to this listener is how well the ensemble plays, how the soloists give it their all each solo, and the timeless quality of Kenny Wheeler's work.

Right around Thanksgiving, I received a huge package from the University of North Texas as the program is celebrating its 70th anniversary.  Slowly but surely, I am making my way through recordings that show the strength of the program's various ensembles, the different arrangers, and numerous fine young soloists.  Those recordings and the one from the University of Toronto serve to remind us that jazz has not disappeared, that there are people who want to learn more and play for audiences, that if you stop worrying about the commercial intent of certain art forms, they can and will survive.  .

In the final chapter of these four posts, I'll look at smaller group recordings, solo and duo albums, and more. Be well all!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

2017, What a Year! (Part 2 - Trumpets & Louis Smiles Down)

If you're a fan of creative trumpet, 2017 has been a banner year.  It's  not at all surprising that Wadada Leo Smith is on the list of best albums - TUM Records issued two at the same time with "Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk" standing out for me. With four Thelonious Monk classicsjuxtaposed with Smith originals, the music draws in the listener with its organic of sound, reverberation, and silence.  There are no dull moments and one can just luxuriate in how this master musician, 76 years on December 18, plays with such power, intelligence, rhythm, and melody.  I was able to attend one night of his "Create Festival" this year (the East Coast version) and can tell you he continues to grow as a musician, composer, and, above all, a human being.

Trumpeter and composer Kenny Warren was a new name to me when "Thank You For Coming to LIFE", his debut recording for Whirlwind Recordings crossed my desk. As I did my research, his previous recordings quickly came to light (his Americana-flavored pair of "Laila & Smitty" disks are stand-outs) plus his recent work with Slavic Soul Party; all those albums and more illustrate the work oof a original thinker and player. This Quartet date - JP Schlegelmilch (piano), Noah Garabedian (bass), and Satoshi Takeishi (drums - has but six songs yet each shines with its own brightness and invention.  Strains of funk, hard bop, classical music, blues, and more, enlivened by the delightful interplay, did bring to mind Wynton Marsalis's "Black Codes" group, especially the urgency, emotion, and the sheer joy of playing music with friends.  

Just as a list such as this has to include Wadada, it's a rare year that Dave Douglas does not give the listener multiple treats. 2017 brought us "Little Giant Still Life" (Greenleaf Music), an album made in collaboration with The Westerlies (trumpeters Riley Mulkerhar and Zubin Hensler plus trombonists Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch) and the delightful drumming of Anwar Marshall. Inspired by the art and artistry of Stuart Davis (1892-1964, composer Douglas creates a aural gallery show that uses the rhythms of the paintings. Note the sly humor in several tracks, the delightful "basso profundo" of the trombones, the use of harmony and counterpoint, and how Marshall makes so much of these pieces dance.  One continues to be impressed at how hard Dave Douglas works and how he takes guidance and direction from his influences and creates timeless music.

Then there's the second album from Douglas's Riverside, a quartet featuring the continually amazing bassist Steve Swallow plus Chet Doxas (tenor sax, bass clarinet) and his brother Jim (drums).  While their debut Greenleaf album nodded in the direction of Jimmy Giuffre, this second effort, "The New National Anthem" finds its inspiration coming from Mr. Swallow's wife, Carla Bley (they even toured Europe with the composer-pianist).  Playful, melodic, genre-busting, highly interactive, this music has such a bright quality, even the ballads take the listener in such fascinating directions.  Long-time fans of Mr. Swallow and Mr. Douglas know they are in for a quality experience from every album but one cannot help but be impressed by the work of the Canadian brothers (Chet's clarinet stands out while Jim locks right in with the bassist, making it sound like they have been a rhythm section for two decades, not just two recordings).

The second album by trumpeter-composer Rebecca Hennessy's FOG Brass Band (self-released) upends one's conception of a traditional Brass ensemble. Yes, it's a sextet but there are three horns (trumpet, trombone, tuba) plus a rhythm section of electric guitar, piano, and drums (no marching band, this).  The composer gives the band such a fascinating collection of tunes in many different styles, such well-formed melodies, smart harmonies, intelligent interplay, a heck of a rhythm section, and don't miss how strong the solos are.  FOG is part of a growing eclectic music scene in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Yes, Ms. Hennessy often take her inspiration from musicians and composers (especially the afore-mentioned Carla Bley and a touch of Duke Ellington) from the country just south of hers but she is quickly developing her "voice" and arranging style.

Trumpeter and composer Sam Boshnack puts to music the story of pioneering journalist Nelly Bly (1864-1922), successfully and not-so-subtly reminding the world of both the power of a single-minded woman but also how the press can tell important stories.  Her Quintet, which features the sublime clarinet playing of Beth Fleenor, understands that the story comes first yet the music offers them music freedom.  The "Nellie Bly Project" may only be 34 minutes long but packs quite a punch, especially in the two long, episodic pieces.  Sam Boshnack, with both her Quintet and the B'shnorkestra, is becoming an important voice in the Pacific Northwest and, hopefully, soon around the world.

The debut album from trumpeter and composer Jaimie Branch, "Fly or Die" (International Anthem), is chock full of ideas, with "hard" beats, brash tones, and features the great playing of Tomeka Reid (cello), Jason Ajemian (bass), and Chad Taylor (drums). Pieces such as "Theme 001" bristle with the energy of Julius Hemphill's "Hard Blues" whereas "Theme 002" reminds this listener of saxophonist Matana Roberts's work with Taylor and bassist Joshua Abrams for their Sticks & Stones trio.  "Theme Nothing" also blends African rhythms, this time with a hint of blues-rock. There are also pieces with multiple overdubs (the muted opening of "Leaves of Glass" is among the quieter sections of the album and employs the cornets of Ben Lamar Gay and Josh Berman, a short, buzzing, solo, and a pair of tracks with acoustic guitarist Matt Schneider.  Plenty of variety packed into 36 minutes and it makes one impatient for more of Jaimie Branch's fascinating music.

Drummer and composer Tomas Fujiwara created quite a project for his new album "Triple Double" (Firehouse 12 Records). This sextet features two guitarists (Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook), two brass (trumpeter Ralph Alessi and the cornet of Taylor Ho Bynum), and two drummers (the leader plus Gerald Cleaver).  There is a "progressive rock" and a blues-rock feel to a number of the pieces and, like Ms. Branch's music, often bristles and erupts. With two such powerful drummers, the band occasionally leaves subtlety behind in favor of a mighty roar but notice how easily they can pull back (especially on "Blueberry Eyes").  Each musician has her or his own "voice" and it's such a aural pleasure to hear Ms. Halvorson articulate lines interacting with Seabrook's "noisier" elements or Alessi's flowing lines in counterpoint with Bynum's splintered, raucous, interjections.  There are a trio of duo pieces - the first, "Hurry Home B/G"", is an unhurried interaction between Seabrook and Cleaver while the second, "Hurry Home M/T" uses similar elements for the duo of Ms. Halvorson and Fujiwara.  Right in the middle of the program, the leader opens "For Alan" with a recording of a lesson he had (as a 10-year old) with the great drummer-educator Alan Dawson (1929-1996) - once the voices drop out, Fujiwara and Cleaver take off on an exciting percussive journey. They are not "one-upping" or "cutting" each other; instead, they get carried away on the power of multi-rhythms and making each other dance.  Mr. Dawson comes back in near the close to teach about syncopation.

Amidst the tumult of sounds, what stands out is the friendship, the musicality, and the willingness to expand the spend as far as these six musicians can.  Give in, let your mind open, and you'll hear many fascinating sounds and exhilarating interactions!

I am halfway through this year's list - next time out, it's large ensemble music and more.